Tombstone Treasure Hunt

By Yanan Wang:

This Sunday, the forecast called for rain. As I left my host family’s apartment that morning, storm clouds loomed above me. Light water drops fell tepidly on my head as I made my way past Avenue Gambetta, stopping when I reached a tall stone archway adorned by sculpted torches at either side. Beyond it were rows of graves and tombstones, arranged in a chaotic mishmash that indicated too many corpses in too small a space. As I stepped inside, I readied myself to be in the company of the dead.

The Père Lachaise Cemetery in the 20e arrondissement is the largest burial ground in Paris and the most visited cemetery in the world. It serves as the final resting place for celebrities and commoners alike, playing host to the corpses of Chopin, Molière, and Proust. In the early 1800s, when the cemetery contained but 13 graves, the administrators arranged for the remains of poet Jean de La Fontaine to be transferred to their site. Soon people were eager to be buried among the famous, and the “residency” of Père Lachaise grew to a resounding 33,000 by 1830. Today, the cemetery extends 30-year leases to families who wish to have their loved ones buried there (there are also plots that can be purchased in perpetuity). There is a waiting list, though, and it helps to be wealthy.

Edith Piaf is among the many celebrities buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery. (Wang/TYG)

That day, I had planned to make the tomb of Oscar Wilde my first stop. But as soon as I entered the cemetery, I realized that it was not a place where things went according to plan. The numerous paths, which varied in size and elevation, all seemed to curve in different, unknowable directions. While making my way through this hallowed labyrinth, I met a man who offered to take me to Wilde. He was a math teacher from the south of France who was visiting Paris for a few days, and he told me that as the cemetery was ideal for exploration, we would take the scenic route.

“You become an expert of a place when you get lost within it,” he said.

Manush the 17-year-old cat was born inside a tomb and is said to be the reincarnation of a long-deceased French man. (Wang/TYG)

Alongside my adventure-hungry new friend, I scaled the highs and lows of the Père Lachaise Cemetery. There were tombstones lodged atop cliffs, and little grassy patches between graves where vines and wildflowers grew. There were tall, tall oak trees that provided shade for bronze sculptures depicting both ghosts and angels. While searching for Oscar Wilde, we stumbled upon Balzac. En route to Jim Morrison, we found Édith Piaf. The cemetery was a maze of staircases and dead ends, and sometimes it was the designs of the ordinary tombs that were the most exceptional of all.

“You have to be careful not to be fooled by the larger, grander tombs,” I was told when we reached Marcel Proust. His tomb was but a slab of marble no larger than an infant’s bed, with his name and duration of life matter-of-factly engraved on one side. My friend smiled knowingly, “Usually the great ones sleep under the most banal pieces of stone.”

Yanan Wang ’15 is in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at